The future of news

The future of news

: I’m writing this post on the train returning from perhaps one symposium on the future of news too many. They can be very frustrating, howing the same rows over and over until you find yourself stuck in a rut: Who’s a journalist? What’s journalism? How do we support newsgathering? How can blogs be trusted without editors? How can big media be trusted without bloggers? Why is the sky blue? What do women really want? Arrrrrghh! So why do I go? It ain’t for the food. It’s because I care about the news business and know we need it; I want it to survive. And I care about citizens’ media and know we need it and want it to grow. I believe the two must do that together. And so I come and do my schizo dance (to the point that Merrill Brown had to ask me more than once when using the first person whether I was speaking as MediaMan or BlogBoy). This one began like all the others and ended like all the others, in the dreaded small-group sessions (no, no, anything but that, oh, god, not the easel!). But at least and at last we started to talk not about the love of what had been or the fear of what is now, but instead about the possibilities for what news can be. In this small group — among them, the AP’s Jim Kennedy, Susan Mernit, Halley Suitt, MIT’s Michael Schrage, and others whose names I’m sorry I don’t have with me right now — we batted around new models for the future, acting as if we were in charge of a local news business in five years. Try this on for size:

So imagine that a local news organization — one of the incumbents or a new competitor — becomes an aggregator of:

: News — Staff still reports, writes, and edits what they do best. But we also link to, syndicate, promote, and support the work of citizen journalists. To the public, we provide a means to get all the news we can find (a new slogan in the era). We are the starting point (for some), the organizer (for some). But we no longer pretend to do it all. It’s distributed news. We even help citizen journalists to join together to report stories: The one tangible suggestion out of this confab came from Jay Rosen, who said that one reporter somewhere will show how open-source journalism will work, bringing together the effort and expertise of the crowd. We can provide support to these “information entrepreneurs,” as one of the group called them: advertising revenue (see below), tools, training (the BBC is starting a journalism school for the people; shouldn’t and couldn’t any local newspaper be that?). And they need not only write stories. Their reporting could be videotaping the board of ed meetings; it could be getting a senior citizens’ club to report on prices in every grocery store; it could be pulling together Little League scores.

: Trust — Yes, it sounds wonky, but we should aggregate trust. Old news organizations did it among few sources; Craig’s List and eBay do it among many. Let’s say that five people cover the school board. Whom do you trust? It might be the one with the most links, or the most positive reviews, or the most traffic, or the most experience, or the fewest corrections and complaints, or the one who has the contempt of the people in power you hate, or perhaps training, or even editing. It may also be the reporter — staff or independent — who is the most transparent, who tells you how she votes so you can judge her reporting. Trust is your decision. We report; you decide.

: Audience — This was our place in the old days: We were the marketplace for news and advertising. Can we still be? Not in the same way, not in the one-size-fits-all, monopoly, mass way. But if we still have the brand, we have promotional power. If we have the best local reporting, we can send traffic to the rest of local reporting. If we have search-engine juice, we can be the starting point for some subjects and then send traffic out. We can target content and advertising based on network-wide preferences and behavior.

: Revenue — Everytime folks in the business dream about getting revenue from the public online, I say it’s likely to be the opposite: We will give revenue to the public. We can sell advertising across targeted, selected, quality networks of local, distributed content, getting a larger and better audience for advertisers and sharing revenue with the content creators based on their performance. We can provide transaction services so, if you want to sell a premium report on local sports or that school board, we can enable it and take our cut. If the audience wants to pay for reporting — a la Chris Albritton to Iraq or Josh Marshall to New Hampshrie — we can enable that, too: pledge week. If we can get back into the eBay business and enable transactions, we can make money and share that, too.

It’s all very open-source: You can report on your own or be part of the network. You can sell ads on your own or as part of the network. You can link to our news or others in the network or not. You can use our tools or others. You can create content in the appropriate form: text, photos, audio, video.

The net result for the local audience should be that they get more reporting, more news and information and viewpoints, not less. They should get the news and information they want anywhere, anytime, in any form, from any source they want. To quote the head of the AP again: we pay attention to the content, not the container. (Read: Distribution is no longer the unique value; quality should be.) The result for the audience is also that they’re not just an audience; they are participants in the conversation now, they have more of a voice, more control, more power.

The net result for advertisers is that they should get more efficient targeting and greater reach and the ability to buy easily (not one site at a time).

The net result for citizen journalists is that they are enabled and supported.

The net result for news organizations? Let’s hope this can help support news-gathering and expand reporting as never before… and save the business.

I’m not saying this is the only way to proceed or that it is realistic or profitable. But I was glad to finally hear some effort to move past lamenting the passing of the past and instead embrace the possibilities of the future.

Here’s an obnoxious way to put it: Instead of being the gatekeepers of news (controlling it), we become the enablers of news.

  • You have my sympathy on the conferences. What an ass whipping. I think, though, the fact that people are still paying good money to hold conferences and go to conferences is good enough evidence that this will still go on for a year or two while the interwebs race past.
    But look at the bright side…more journo conferences!

  • “Let’s say that five people cover the school board.”
    I’d say that if five people cover the school board, four of them aren’t getting paid. Which means they probably have an ax to grind. Rather than plowing my way through five school board stories, testing for biases and checking links to see how my trust should be apportioned, I think I could save time by just going to the damn meeting.

  • SteveMG

    It’s clear in this new age of journalism that the consumer will have to be a more active participant than the passive one he has been previously. With more avenues to go down, he will have to be a smarter traveller. He’ll need maps, no?
    But what disturbs me more than anything – and it’s an old observation admittedly – is that this new journalism makes the idea of what Walter Lippmann called a “public philosophy” increasingly problematic.
    As you probably know, Lippmann wrote seminal works on public opinion and what is called democratic theory. He was, to be charitable, sceptical to the idea that the great mass of people could engage in direct democracy. Their knowledge on issues was too desultory and limited since they neither had the time, or interest to delve deeply in many issues.
    What was needed then, Lippmann pointed out, inter alia, was the development of “Bureaus of Intelligence” where both the ordinary citizens and the elites could gather objective, independent information. In addition, we would need to develope a “public philosophy” (since Lippmann saw that the “death of God” would erode the unifying worldview of human being) where the citizens could agree on basic thoughts. A common heritage of customs, myths, stories, history, ideas, language, et cetera.
    In a complex diverse commercial republic like the US, we would need less diversity (he didn’t use such language since it wasn’t the vernacular of the times) and more unity. Information would be one aspect of this unifying process.
    With the multiplicity of news, with new avenues of information, the ability to create a “public philosophy” of agreed upon history is made less and not more likely.
    The issue, of course, is not just more information, more news, but BETTER news.

  • Did you talk about the legal liability a news company takes on when bringing community bloggers under their roof? I’m inclined to think that’s still the major concern. … Bloggers are still mostly in denial on the lawsuit angle I think. Ask Denton to post what he spends defending Gawker over the Durst porn video.

  • Instead of being the gatekeepers of news (controlling it), we become the enablers of news.
    I like that sentiment a lot. Very nice. My only suggestion would be to replace the word “news” with “information.” Labelling something as “news” is a political act all in itself. We should be moving towards media and tools that enable and facilitate the free flow of information.

  • SMG and Amy both make good points. I just wanted to add that I have been willing for many years to pay a few bucks a month to have a chunk of dead tree thrown into my front yard every morning in part because I am willing to subsidize the cost of having a newspaper reporter sit through all those boring meetings that I do not wish to attend. I may not read 10 percent of what the reporter writes, and the reporter may get some of that 10 percent wrong, but it is worth it to me to have somebody sitting there in case news breaks out who is reasonably fair and objective, who has some knowledge of what’s going on and who is paid neither by the school district nor by somebody who is looking for favors from the district.
    I can’t afford to pay to have five people sit through a school board meeting. So what bothers me about the brave new world of “citizen journalism” is that the market could become so fragmented that nobody will be able to afford to pay a reporter to sit through those meetings. This isn’t sky-is-falling rhetoric. It’s already happening.
    On the other hand, the internet and community access TV have made it easier than ever for me to avoid journalism altogether. I could watch every board meeting from gavel to gavel on cable. I could download meeting minutes and agendas. But I won’t. Have these developments made me a better informed citizen than if I simply relied on the newspaper? Probably not.
    A final point: I have worked with freelance writers for years, and I have found very few people who are willing and able to write straight news for minimal or no wages. Opinion is a different matter: I could fill every page of my weekly newspaper with opinions, and it wouldn’t cost me a nickel. The blogosphere seems to be shaking out the same way: tons of opinions for free, very little actual reporting at any price. I am hopeful about the potential for community-based journalism, but I don’t see anything in it that changes this dynamic.

  • Here’s a real-world test. Who will get to the truth of what happened with the freed and shot-at Italian hostage — bloggers, traditional media, some combination or neither? Will bloggers seek the truth or will they stake out their pro- and anti-war stands? Is there any original reporting that bloggers can do on this story? Will traditional media do any better, or will they get distracted by something else?

  • Good questions, Brian. I think the problem comes from the typification of “bloggers” as some homogeneous group. There are bloggers who sit at home, link to news items, and provide their commentary. There are also bloggers who investigate and dig for information, both from their home and out in the streets. Will there be any bloggers who have the contacts and resources to fully investigate this story? Including travelling to Iraq and/or Italy? We’ll see….

  • Steel Magnolia

    It’s all very open-source: You can report on your own or be part of the network. You can sell ads on your own or as part of the network. You can link to our news or others in the network or not. You can use our tools or others. You can create content in the appropriate form: text, photos, audio, video.

    So what’s new here?
    For an avowed populist, you seem surprisingly susceptible to Mediameister’s Syndrome. Though not exclusive to MMS, an addiction to central planning is a characteristic feature of this profoundly corporate condition. Your use of “the network” above, versus, for instance, “a network” seems significant and symptomatic. While I’m comfortable enough with the editorial “we” or the occasional royal “we,” I find myself decidedly put off by the self-appointed “we” in evidence here, not to mention a depressing proliferation of “shoulds.”
    What you are really talking about is a hierarchical, guild-like structure which not only sounds downright old-fashioned, but seems antithetical to the freewheeling nature of the medium itself. You refer to open sourcing and distributed news, yet you are describing their conceptual opposites. What you’re talking about is just another form of managed (clubby, profitable) distribution, an incursion on the very self-distributing mechanisms which are the internet’s greatest strength.
    I personally am far more alarmed by potential depredations on free speech and easy access than on any lack of standards or status. Your vision seems unaccountably, disappointingly, limited and limiting. I can only hope that the web will remain large enough to accomodate the MainStreamNet of your imagination and its alternatives, both known and yet to be imagined.

  • I think we should come up with better definitions for what we’re talking about. There is “news” and then there is “reporting” and “analysis.” They are different things, but right now wrapped up in the same package.
    I think news organizations (newspapers, broadcast, etc.) will continue to report news. We’ll learn stuff from people being paid to be at the schoolboard meeting. They’ll tell what happened.
    (Although increasingly the school board itself will begin to tell what happened, through the broadcast of its meetings, or through a blog it writes about the meetings….)
    Citizen journalism may take over the other two, reporting and analysis. Because citizens are actually the opinionmakers of the world, and the experts of the world. They know more than journalists do, in some cases individually but certainly collectively.
    So analysis and reporting can leave the realm of the MSM and easily slide into citizen media.
    Where journalists may find the most trouble is in their “specialty” areas, where they are supposed to know a lot, but actually know less than the citizens they serve. I also think editorial pages are in danger, the ones written by the editorial board. I mean, who the hell decides who gets to be on an editorial board? Why are their opinions more important than anyone else’s? And they speak for the newspaper, which supposedly speaks for…well, who? The citizenry? I think the MSM wheels fall off right here.

  • Jenny, I don’t get your distinction between “news” and “reporting.” Could you elaborate?
    You also say that citizens “know more than journalists do, in some cases individually but certainly collectively.” I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. If you mean that the accumulated knowledge of the entire citizenry about schools exceeds the individual knowledge of whatever reporter happens to cover the school board then you are certainly correct. That’s always been true and always will be.
    But if you mean that citizens as a group are generally more knowledgeable about what goes on at school board meetings than reporters who cover them regularly, then you are woefully misinformed. I used to cover Texas A&M sports, and I used to cover City Hall. On the Texas A&M beat, I constantly had to scramble to keep up with the intensely knowledgeable and committed Aggies who pored over every word I wrote.
    But after a couple of City Council meetings, I knew more about City Hall than probably 90 percent of my readers. After a few months, I was ahead of most of the other 10 percent. The few who always knew more than me were with rare exceptions either on the public payroll, had served previously, or had it in for somebody. Outside of the occasional loud controversy, most people just don’t pay much attention to this stuff.

  • David, I knew I hadn’t said this well. So let me say more.
    I know that you know more about the school board than I do. And you understand how it works. But here’s a scenario: The school board decides to try to fight NCLB by substituting the Terra Nova test for the state-mandated test. As you are writing the news story, what do you know about the context of that decision beyond the politics and situation of the moment?
    I confess to know nothing about the local school board. But I know an awful lot about those two tests, and about why the board might be doing its constituency a huge disservice. I know that because I’m a citizen with a lot of expertise on that area.
    So you would report the news of the board, but I might do the “enterprise reporting” about the context of the decision, or the ramifications, and also round up other similar decision and consequences based on the test designs. Or I might offer an opinion on the decision based on my expertise. Which the person doing the news perhaps won’t have.
    There are plenty of areas like this: think law, medicine, education, chemistry, economics.
    In the past, experts were not able to speak to people the way they can now. Look at the Becker-Posner blog, or Left2Right, or Crooked Timber, or Richard Friedman’s Confrontation Blog, devoted to a single interpretation of a Constitutional amendment and its impact on criminal law.
    It makes the notion of writing news on an 8th grade level seem a little silly…

  • Getting revenue from the public online is only a dream if you continue to cling to the myopic distinctions that exclude would-be paying content creators from your

  • Jenny, thanks for the clarification. But this brings us back to the starting point: If I’m not there to report the news, where do you fit in?
    My theory on blogging (or “open-source journalism”) is that it has made every newspaper a community newspaper. Just as small newspapers always have printed nearly every letter to the editor and have faced their readers nose to nose, big papers now face similar pressures. So what I am about to describe for small papers also works for the New York Times, I think.
    The old newsgathering model works like this: I cover the school board meeting, and if trustees talk about testing, I write a story about that. If I am a reasonably diligent reporter (which I am) and if I have time (which I might not), I call an expert, you for instance, to find out why changing the test might be a bad idea. And then maybe I find somebody who thinks it’s a good idea and quote both of you.
    Or if I miss you, maybe you call me the next day and tell me what I’m missing. Or maybe you write a letter to the editor or even a guest column. This is a far more laborious and less efficient mechanism than the internet. It involves editing and delay, and I have to buy expensive newsprint to publish your response — which means I may not publish it, or may not publish all of it.
    On the other hand, under the old model, nearly everybody reads the paper. It’s an all-purpose bulletin board with the most complete news coverage in town, plus sports scores, the horoscope, comics and grocery store ads. So your slow, inefficient, expensive opinion reaches just about everybody in the community who is interested in the topic and quite a few people who aren’t interested but read it anyway because the paper thought it was important enough to print. If your argument is good enough, you may derail the whole proposal.
    Under the new model … what? Maybe my share of the market gets so small that I can’t afford to sit through a school board meeting that most people don’t care about anyway. Again, this isn’t hypothetical: Newspapers have been cutting back on this kind of coverage for years.
    So, as Jeff imagines, maybe five people go to the meeting and all write stories. Maybe one is there because his kid is winning an award (or getting punished). Maybe one is there because she hates the superintendent and wants to get him fired. Maybe another is interested in a school bond project. Maybe one is a crackerjack reporter who can’t write a lick. Maybe none of them cares enough about testing to mention the one topic that you have expertise in. And since school trustees aren’t necessarily interested in having you point out what a bad idea they are considering, they make no particular effort to let you know about it.
    Or maybe one of those citizen journalists does mention the test. But since you aren’t likely to read five stories about a school board meeting unless you some special interest, maybe you never see it. Or maybe you see it and pen an eloquent, tightly reasoned response that disappears into cyberspace, just as this discussion will.
    My point is: Is the public really better served than it was back when you had to read my story in the paper and respond to it? I’d like to think it is, but I haven’t figured out how.

  • More on the hostage shooting… This is bound to sound like a hyperpolitical hijacking of the topic, but bear with me, I’m just in need of some journalism, and I’m willing to get it from whatever source is interesting in delivering. A test, as I mentioned above.
    Looking for the facts, I’m wading through blogs like Little Green Footballs and getting lots of “Lying commie,” claims that the hostage must have set the whole thing up, a few perceptive questions (300 rounds fired and one person dead, with a single shot to the head?) but few facts. Hundreds of posts wasted discussing a photo of the wrong car. On anti-war blogs, an immediate assumption that U.S. forces were trying to shoot a freed Italian hostage, and that where the accounts conflict, the military must be lying. From the media, a scattering of facts across a dozen stories. On Google news, various sources “8 minutes ago” continue to report claims which the free hostage has already backpedaled from. Can anybody provide a calm, thorough, start-to-finish account of what happened? I’m willing to pay.

  • Jeff,
    Great post. I like your observations and they got me to thinking

  • Tim

    “howing the rows”? I think you mean “hoeing” – the farming activity – don’t you?
    It’s so much easier to make mistakes these days, isn’t it? On my local news show’s sports segment tonight, I saw a graphic that said “Hot Steak” when they meant “Hot Streak”!

  • David, excellent comments, you get to the heart of the matter. What I can’t get enough of is how much the ranting on the mainstream media focuses on the daily newspapers, and ignores the critical “long view” traditionally provided by magazines.
    Btw, one of Jarvis’s critics here, Paul Lukasiak, tells me that his name “paul_lukasiak” is a flag for questionable content, so I thought I’d test that theory.